Valentine’s Day Special Edition: Heart Health From Every Angle… Mind, Body & Soul

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Our minds and our hearts are inextricably intertwined.

Mostly we can feel this on an emotional level — we can literally feel the people we love making our hearts feel warm and protected and expand in our chest.  And sadly even people we are hurt by or scared of, we can feel that too — our hearts can feel colder or constricted or pound with fear in our chests.

Some of you are also aware that electrically — the brain and the heart each have an electrical field and that these electrical fields overlap.  This gives our brain’s electrical activity (thinking) and heart’s electrical activity (heartbeats) a direct electrical link to each other, meaning our minds are literally energetically linked to our hearts.

It’s so beautiful:

 

 

 

But as a physician I want you to know that even biologically, as discrete, individual physical organ systems, there is a direct messaging through the physical body between the heart and the mind such heart issues can literally cause psychological issues and vice versa.

This is the least understand interaction between the heart and the mind, but recent medical studies are starting to clarify this heart/mind connection.  In fact, in medicine we now recognize this exquisite connection between the heart and the mind that has given birth to a new field of medicine, called Behavioral Cardiology.

Behavioral Cardiology is an important field, because if we improve psychological health, we improve heart health.  And if we improve heart health, might we improve psychological health?  I believe so.

First of all, we clearly see that stress affects heart — acute psychological stress directly increases the risk of sudden heart attack and cardiovascular death.  So much so that anxiety is actually a cardiac risk factor for heart attack and cardiac death, and depression increases risk of both fatal and non-fatal heart attack as well.  If you’d like to read a medical review looking at all of the medical literature to date on mood disorders and cardiac health this one, published in 2000 in the Archives Of Internal Medicine, is a good one to start with.

Another, very interesting study looking at how our heart responds to mental stress found a key difference between the way a woman’s heart responds to stress and the way a man’s heart responds to stress.  Published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology on Dec. 21, 2017, researchers found that there is an incredible difference between how a woman’s cardiovascular system responds to mental stress and how a man’s cardiovascular system responds to mental stress.

Researchers studied 678 patients with coronary artery disease and preformed myocardial perfusion imaging before and during a well known stressor: public speaking.  I get so anxious with public speaking that I totally agree it’s the perfect setting to see how the heart reacts to perceived emotional stress.  After obtaining the results of the cardiac perfusion study both at rest and during public speaking, researchers analyzed data from several different parameters of cardiac output and perfusion to see what affect the stress had on heart health.

The Results:

  • Turns out, men responded to the mental stress of public speaking by having a larger change in blood pressure, and a higher demand on the cardiovascular system to increase output.  The increased cardiac output demands put the men at greater risk for heart attack.
  • Women were the opposite.  Women responded to the mental stress of public speaking by having greater peripheral vasoconstriction (meaning the blood vessels constricted more, which limits the blood flow through them.)  The increased vasoconstriction puts women at greater risk of heart attack as well, but for an entirely different reason than men.

 

 

 

Men respond to stress with an increased demand for blood flow, and while the heart works harder in an attempt to pump more blood out, this creates a mismatch in how much blood can reach the tissues and the result is a heart attack.

Women respond to stress with decrease in the peripheral perfusion do to increased vasoconstriction, which puts them at higher risk for ischemic heart attack.

In other words, the male’s heart demands more output during stress while a female’s vasculature constricts more during stress — and both responses put everyone at increased risk of heart attack during emotional stress.

Same end result, but different pathways.

And this is important because we can now start to tailor treatments to help really target and promote healing during stress, illness, depression.  These studies suggest that men may be most helped by targeting inflammation and stress management treatments, while women might be most helped by immune boosting and circulation boosting therapies.

For example, perhaps men might benefit more from:

  • lowering blood pressure with supplements
  • decreasing inflammation through grounding
  • and stress reduction techniques of meditation, acupuncture and yoga.

While women, with the same heart disease, anxiety or depression that men have, might benefit more from:

  • supplements that target boosting immunity
  • therapies that heal leaky gut and other autoimmune pathways
  • along with exercises designed to boost circulation and perfusion like walking, aerobic exercise, hot yoga, even deep tissue massage.

This is just one example of countless different treatment plans that you and your physician could come up with, targeting specific pathways that are unique to you now that we know a little more about the stress response differences between men and women.

 

 

 

This medical study, published in 2017 in Lancet, tried to uncover exactly why there is this direct correlation between stress and heart attack, in both men and women.  It turns out, increased brain activity in the area of emotional processing (the amygdala) directly increases the risk of cardiovascular events.

This study was the first to show that increased amygdala activity in humans strongly predicts cardiovascular events such as stroke, heart attack and angina.  Researchers followed 293 patients who underwent full body PET/CT scans at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA.  The measured resting metabolic activity in the amygdala, bone marrow and arterial walls.

Researchers found that increased activity in the amygdala was strongly correlated with increased arterial inflammation and increased risk of cardiovascular events during an average follow up period of 3 1/2 years.  They also found that high levels of self rated stress correlated with increases in amygdala activity, higher levels of arterial inflammation, and higher levels of the blood inflammatory marker: C-reactive protein.

Finally, a physical explanation for the very real connection between the emotional center of our brain and our heart health.  The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions, survival instincts and memory.

That about sums up how stress feels: it’s an increased emotional load, a feeling of being overwhelmed when trying to navigate a stressful situation, and traumatic memories from the past all get linked up with traumatic present experiences — which come together to increase the metabolic activity in your amygdala.

 

 

 

 

Based on these studies, researchers now believe that it is actually the brain activity of the amygdala (and emotional stress in particular) that links stressful events with cardiovascular disease — causing increased vascular inflammation, increased cardiovascular disease and increased risk of stroke, heart attack and angina.

More recently, published in 2021 in JAMA Cardiology, researchers specifical studied the link between heart disease and women with a history of trauma.  Because most studies on heart disease have focused on the male population, this one really caught my eye.

Looking at almost 400,000 women, researchers identified women diagnosed with PTSD and matched them to age and cardiovascular risk correlated female controls with no history of PTSD.  They then looked at ischemic heart disease outcomes, including new onset coronary artery disease, angina or heart attack (myocardial infarction) over a 5 year follow up period.

Researchers found that a history of PTSD in younger females increased the risk of developing subsequent heart disease by almost 60%.  Yuck.  A history of trauma pretty dramatically increases the risk of lasting heart health issues long term.

 

 

 

 

To me, this study serves to underscore how very strongly our mental and emotional state affect our well being.

The link between stress and heart attack, stroke, and angina is so pronounced that researchers are now advocating stress levels, a history of anxiety, and a history of depression to all be considered independent risk factors for heart disease, along with other classic cardiac risk factors such as age, smoking history, and family history of heart disease.

And a study published in 2016 in Circulation shows that this idea has real world applications and uncovers some very helpful solutions.  Researchers followed over 150 patients who were assigned to have cardiac rehab care following a cardiac event, and found that by adding stress management skills into their cardiac rehab program they were able to slash the rate of future cardiac events in a 5 year follow up period IN HALF!

So if addressing stress reduces the risk of subsequent heart attack by 50%, now we know why: stressful brain activity is directly correlated with cardiovascular events. Reduce the stress response in the brain, reduce heart disease in the body.

 

 

Because there is so much interconnection between your heart and your mind, you can use this information to enhance the longevity of your heart from so many angles… medically, spiritually, energetically, and emotionally.

On an energetic level, as an intuitive physician I can confirm this..,. you can boost the health of your heart on  medical, spiritual, emotional and energetic levels if you can release the barriers stress has placed around you.

To help show you this, I tore a page out of my old med school anatomy book and painted it for you:

 

 

(this original artwork has sold.)

 

 

We have a heart to pump blood (and thereby deliver oxygen and nutrients) to every part of our body.  It’s function is absolutely critical to life.  The heart is composed of a mass of muscle cells who’s function is to work together to deliver the vital nutrients, oxygen and fluids in our blood to our entire organism.

So what is the one thing your heart needs in order to do all this, in order to function at all?  Flexibility.

The heart’s strength is it’s ability to expand and contract.  Without it, we have no heartbeat at all.

If your heart is brittle, stiff, unmoving… it can’t work.  It absolutely needs to have flexibility in order to maintain it’s strength.  And this is exactly what happens with our heart physically.  As a response to chronic inflammation, our blood vessels become coated with plaques (atherosclerosis) but these plaques, instead of strengthening our vessels, actually strangulate them.  The more coated, the thicker the walls, the higher the risk of heart attack.

But this is also what happens with our heart energetically, and it is where we get our the power — from a heart that is full of love, infused with life, flexible, bending and free.

If your heart is hardened, if you are protecting yourself by building walls, if you are living life defensively, how can your heart spread joy and health freely to your entire body?

Protecting ourselves comes at a price.  Building walls brings a brittleness, a false strength that can suffocate that which you are trying to protect. With your own flexibility gone, you lose your power.  Far more powerful is the heart that can open fully and contract fully… that can feel fully.

So if  your heart is feeling brittle, limited, stiff, hardened, or empty… nurture your own heart first.  Begin with flexibility.  Allow your thoughts to expand, give yourself the flexibility to allow multiple points of view, the vulnerability to be hurt, and the strength to bounce back even stronger.

Give yourself a little love.  A little softness.  A little forgiveness.  A little flexibility.

Flexibility is what makes your heart strong.  Powerful flexibility of the heart is what feeds your entire body, infusing it with life sustaining nutrition, oxygen, and fluids.

Here is another artwork I created using my same med school anatomy book, this time showing you the pathway towards restoring heart health.

I added one of my favorite Rumi quotes to it to remind us to focus on flexibility and openness to restore heart health:

 

 

This artwork is available right here

 

So, with the focus on flexibility and embracing our core strength by being open and pliable… where can our hearts take us?

To the very opposite of being constricted, walled in, brittle… expansion, pure expansion!

Our hearts are the center of our ability to expand… expand beyond just ourselves, and beyond just our limited experience, and expand beyond just this situation.

We can feel our connection to others, and our eternal nature.  Our heart center expands outwards in a powerful, measurable energy field, right from the center of our being.  In fact, our heart’s energy field is actually bigger than our brain’s measurable energy field, and maybe even best of all, they overlap.

You can literally feel this in your body.  Have you ever sat, focusing on something that made you so happy that you literally felt your heart grow larger and larger and larger still?

Have you ever felt that your chest was going to explode, your heart energy got so big?

Have you ever felt your heart vibration reach past your chest, past your body, reach into the space around, to the people around you, to the universe around you?

It feels so good, and it feels so good because it is the healthy state of being connected to all of the energy around you.

You are dropping the limited barriers of what defines *you* and reaching out to *all that is*… in this state, you are pure, positive joy.  In this state, you have blown up all the barriers around your heart, the ones that you built to *protect you* that actually harm you… they are dissolved and meaningless.

You are greater than this one moment in time, this one body, this one lifetime.

Through your heart, you can expand past any problem, any limitation.  Through your heart, you can connect to all that is physical and non-physical around you.  Through your heart, you can *feel* the eternal connections that you can’t physically see with your eyes.

 

 

 

Your heart is an amazing electrically activated organ, designed to pump nutrition and health throughout your entire body.  It’s designed to pump joy and love throughout your entire being.  It’s entire function is dependent on it’s ability to translate energetic impulses into a functional push of the blood throughout your body.

But do not limit your heart to what it physically can do.  Do not regard it as a piece of muscle designed to transport blood. Instead, really *feel* the entire purpose of it’s design.  It is the one organ, more than any other, that connects your entire body together — infusing every single organ system with life giving nutrients.  It reaches every tissue, every surface, every organ.  Through it’s immense meshwork of vasculature, your heart is one of complete and utter connection.

Of expansion.

Physically expanding to reach every single cell in your body… and emotionally, expanding your life force from the core of you to the universe around you.

To strengthen and expand your feelings of health and joy, remember back to those experiences where you feel your heart expanding, and seek to find those more often.

I felt them most intensely as a new mom, holding my babies.  I can bring back that feeling any time I wish by remembering what it was like to hold them in my arms.  To love on them.  To take care of them.  To adore them.

Recall your own times when your have felt your heart swell and reach for that feeling as often as you can.  In this state you are realizing that the walls you build around your body and mind are no longer helpful, but instead, are constricting.

 

 

 

 

This picture was taken over a dozen years ago, and both my kids are now all grown up and off to college… yet when I sit in appreciation for my children I can literally still feel my heart pound against my chest just like it did when they were first born.  I feel it expanding through my entire body, then out of my body, pulsing into the universe and connecting me to a greater love.

It is in these moments that I *know* I am tapped in to something more than just myself.  And it is in these moments that I know my connection to my children is eternal.

Do what you can, today, to find a moment like this and savor it.

You have just found your heartsong.

Every moment you spend in that state, you spend in the state of pure and absolute health.

 

Want more holistic tips on heart health?  I’ve written these free healing articles for you:

 

To a lovely Valentine’s week with a deeper understanding of just how beautifully intertwined your heart is with your brain and your emotions — lets fill all three with love.

xoxox, Laura Koniver, MD